Museworthy: 5 Feminist Anthropologists Who Have Shaped Our Global Understanding

Following this week’s interview with the incredibly insightful and articulate Lindsey Raisa Feldman, a PhD candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of Arizona, we became intensely aware that our knowledge of feminist anthropology was seriously lacking, so we set about to change that.

Up until the mid-19th century, the overwhelming majority of anthropological studies were conducted by – yep, you guessed it – white males. These studies were not only conducted by white men, but the subjects were predominantly male-focused. Given that anthropology is the study of humans, and half of these humans are female, the field was in desperate need of dramatic change if it was to accurately portray our species as a whole. Thus, starting in the mid-19th century, there was a great push for more female-focused study, or “feminist anthropology.”

Below, we’ll introduce you to a few women whose work we found to be particularly inspiring, spanning from the mid-19th century to the present.

Elsie Clews Parsons, 1875 – 1931

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Elsie Clews Parsons was born into an upper-class banking family in New York City. Despite pressure from her family to remain “in the home,” she graduated from Barnard College and went on to receive her doctorate in education from Columbia University in 1899. Throughout her career, she certainly managed to stir things up, focusing specifically on gender roles and society’s effects on its citizens. Parsons published two “radical” books during her husband’s term as a Congressman, one which advocated for straightforward sex education. In 1910, she published the other, titled The Old-Fashioned Woman, an ethnographic study of women’s roles within the New York upper-crust elite that she was so familiar with, concluding that “woman” itself was an antiquated categorization held in place by equally outdated rituals and traditions. Following the considerable rabble-rousing she did in the city, she went on to travel and study the rest of America’s offerings, including Caribbean culture and the Native American cultures of New Mexico and Arizona which culminated in the publishing of Pueblo Indian Religion. Parsons went on to fund numerous students’ research; to serve as a mentor and teacher to many other influential anthropologists; to found The New School for Social Research; and to serve as the first woman president of the American Anthropological Association.

Ruth Benedict, 1887-1948

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Ruth Benedict, a graduate of Vassar, actually began her in career as an anthropologist after studying under the aforementioned Elsie Crews Parsons at The New School for Social Research, where she earned her PhD. Benedict was particularly interested in North American Indian cultures and brought a unique perspective to anthropology, one that allowed for a wider, more fluid view of culture. Through her studies of the Serrano, Zuni, Prima, and Apache people, she came to believe that cultures were the sum of many elements, including intellectual, religious, and aesthetic, and that the personality of a culture influences and defines its members.

Margaret Mead, 1901-1978

The American anthropologist studying tzantzas she brought back from a trip in New Guinea. 19340122 L'anthropologue américaine étudiant les têtes réduites qu'elle a ramenées d'un voyage en Nouvelle-Guinée. 19340122

Margaret Mead was also a student under Elsie Clews Parsons, as well as the lover of Ruth Benedict. The daughter of progressive Quaker parents, Mead was always encouraged to observe the world around her, but also to take meticulous notes on these observations. Mead is primarily known for her studies of Polynesian cultures, where she observed a more relaxed approach to premarital sex that seemed to be beneficial for adolescents coming of age, as well as evidence that sex and gender are not one and the same, but actually completely different forces. These studies are cited as significant contributions to America’s sexual revolution and second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 70s and are explored more in depth in her two most famous works, Coming of Age in Samoa and Sex & Temperament.

Dr. Audrey Smedley, 1930-Present

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Dr. Smedley is a social anthropologist and professor of African-American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. Smedley has written on the history of anthropology and the origin and evolution of the idea of human races since the late 1970s, giving us one of the most cited definitions of race that we have – “Race is an ideology that says that all human populations are divided into exclusive and distinct groups; that all human populations are ranked, they are not equal. Inequality is absolutely essential to the idea of race. The other part is that the behavior of people is very much part of their biology.”

Dr. Leith Mullings Marable, 1945-Present

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Leith Mullings Marable is a Jamaican-born author, anthropologist, and professor who served as the president of the American Anthropological Association from 2011-2013. Her work is distinguished by her thorough application of feminist and critical race theories, wherein she attacks structures of inequality and resistance to them within urban American communities. The role of women in Africa has also received a considerable amount of her research time and commitment, which is exemplified in her book, On Our Own Terms: Race, Class and Gender in the Lives of African-American Women. 

+ DO YOU KNOW ANY FEMINIST ANTHROPOLOGISTS WE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT? SHARE THEIR WORK WITH US IN THE COMMENTS!

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. It’s odd reading what another person (presumably from another discipline) considers a person’s most significant work. Margaret Mead for example I know specifically through her sociological work in which she effectively opened up the subject of non-institutional or subversive sexism undermine the ability to compete for women in the workforce. Even though Mead acknowledged there was no formal barrier, all meetings would occur in places such as strip clubs or golf clubs, in which females could not reasonably participate. This little nuance resulted in an in-out-group dynamic.

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  2. aah17 says:

    My personal hero feminist anthropologist is a genre-breaker: Zora Neale Hurston. She got her start at writing by going back to her hometown of Eatonville, FL and then to New Orleans, LA to document the post-slavery lifestyles and oral histories in Southern African American communities. When her dissertation review committee at Columbia (including her advisor Franz Boas, one of the so-called fathers of anthropology) dismissed her book, Mules and Men, as too autobiographical, she shrugged it off and became a Harlem Renaissance woman instead.

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